Box Office Shepherds

Mel Gibson and Michael Moore made very different movies with the same message: The truth shall make you free

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At first glance, you might not think that Mel Gibson and Michael Moore had much in common beyond the fact that they both have Oscars and an M in their first name. Mel the buff pilgrim, Michael the lumpy rebel: Opposite poles of the human spectrum, no? But watch them long enough--and in the past year we have had plenty of opportunity--and it dawns on you that maybe these guys have more in common than one would suppose. They both have a reassuring regular quality. Both seem like guys who maintain a clear channel, albeit from different locations, into that enigmatic, shape-shifting thing, the American mainstream. And if that's true, maybe it's not so surprising that they had something else in common this year, something important. Let's call it a shared intuition. Both of them knew there were enormous reservoirs of feeling out there--yearning, anger, fear--emotions that were not being satisfied by the usual run of movies or network news reports. And both made films, one sacred, one profane, that powerfully tapped into those emotions.

Did we say tapped? What we meant was drilled. The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11 pressed deep and hard into some of the most sensitive areas of the American psyche. You could go to any theater where either one was playing and find yourself at some point in a full house of tears, some of them probably your own. And what Gibson and Moore both cared about wasn't just the easy sentiments that can be summoned up anytime you have Frodo say goodbye to Gandalf. These were filmmakers operating in the very largest realms--the longing for faith, the demand for truth--in a world that can be patronizing to the first and indifferent to the second.

And though only one of them made an explicitly political film, they both produced works that struck major chords in a presidential election year in which faith and truth were in some ways the questions at the very heart of the campaign. How should religious values be expressed in public life? Did the President lie to get support for the war in Iraq? Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker, has even said that the ongoing struggle for the definition of America can be described as "Michael Moore vs. Mel Gibson."

It isn't quite that simple, of course. Just ask Moore, who says that his film, too, resonates with Christ's message. The Passion of the Christ emphasized Christ's final hours and, for the most part, left out scenes of his ministry. "But my film dovetails with the rest of Jesus' life," Moore told TIME last week. "It connects to his message about questioning those in authority, of being a man of peace, of loving your neighbor." And there were people this year who loved both movies--loved Moore's acrobatic wit and Gibson's unyielding gravity. And still others who hated both--hated Moore's penchant for flamboyant speculation and Gibson's reckless portrayal of the role Jews played in Jesus' death.

All the same, Gingrich had a point. Even if it weren't composed entirely of inhabitants of some vast spiritual red zone, the huge audience for The Passion of the Christ was one more sign of the magnitude of the Great American Congregation, the tens of millions of people of faith all across the country, people the Republicans court aggressively and the Democrats woo awkwardly.

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